By MIYA IWATAKI
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…the people who give you food give you their heart.” — Cesar Chavez
It comes in a flurry. That “most wonderful time of the year” that is actually a period of about seven weeks…of eating.
First Thanksgiving – a traditional roast turkey with all of the homemade trimmings, garlic mashed potatoes, bacon Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, corn bread, salads, cranberry sauce, pies. After years of tasting and testing with cornbread, focaccia, sticky rice, sausage, apples, chestnuts, etc. our family goes for traditional bread dressing cooked outside of the turkey (rather than stuffing, which is cooked inside the turkey).
Suddenly Christmas (Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, etc.) is around the corner. Everyone seems more cheerful, and more rushed. We try to resist the constant bombardment of commercialism that threatens to overshadow the higher intent of this holiday. A month filled with bringing out the Xmas lights, trimming trees, putting out holiday decorations, holiday crafts parties and boutiques, and reconnecting with friends.
And finally the Day, celebrating joy and love with family, opening gifts, wishing for the gift of world peace, and the traditional sit-down dinner. Another sumptuous meal; but with some sort of universal tacit approval for everyone to pig out on yummy homemade cookies (my weakness) and all manner of sweets.
But there is no rest for the weary. Immediately one week later — OSHOGATSU — the biggest and best holiday of the year. Of course, had I kept up with Marie Kondo’s “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” I wouldn’t have thrown out my back carrying boxes of stuff back and forth from the garage; or to the back room that is supposed to one day be my office. Eliminating this step would immediately reduce my stress level by 50 percent.
We do the traditional Oshogatsu and prepare osechi ryori, the special Japanese New Year’s delicacies. In Japan, osechi ryori was cooked before New Year’s Day, and was meant to last for up to seven days without refrigeration. The original reason for this was because there was a seven-day period of non-cooking to appease the fire god, Kohji. He would get upset and cause a natural hazard if you made fire so early in the year. In later years, the purpose of the non-cooking period was “to give housewives a rest during the New Year’s holidays since they worked so hard until New Year’s Eve.” Hmmm.
My first Oshogatsu memories were at Grandpa and Grandma’s house. She was a master cook. Her ozoni was delicate and delicious. And she was known for her “chicken gohan” made with mochi rice, chicken and gobo flavored perfectly. We used to politely as possible gorge ourselves. You took one bite and wanted to say, “Grandma, you da man!” I wish I had the foresight to cook alongside of her to learn her recipes, delicate flavorings and cooking techniques. And taken lots of photos of her awesome presentation. My dad picked up a lot of her cooking instincts, and he has mastered the chicken gohan, which is now the most popular dish at our gathering.
Assuming more responsibility for Oshogatsu without my mom would have been overwhelming without the sure hand and expert cooking skills of my dad. He is now 95 years old, and has more or less “retired” from the heavy cooking. I still stand in awe of how my parents would cook for days and stay up all night preparing for 80-100 or so family and friends who would drop by throughout the day! And I don’t remember them getting much help from us.
Our “open house” began in the morning with people dropping by for ozoni; and continued through late in the evening drinking sake and laughing and reminiscing with our closest relatives. Everyone would bring something, and we never ran out of food or drink.
Today, we celebrate Oshogatsu at my house. I had to devise a five-day strategic planning grid, for efficiency and to avoid becoming flustered (okay — spaced out). Osechi ryori is very complex, intricate. The base is a good dashi, and the holy trilogy of sake-shoyu-mirin; and the ever-vigilant sesame seed oil.
Certain foods can only be prepared on The Day, whereas others can be prepared in steps, washing-peeling-slicing-marinating; seasonings and sauces made in advance, setting out the myriad Oshogatsu platters and bowls.
In Japan, Osechi ryori is considered the most important meal of the year with each dish serving as a symbol or wish for the coming year. For example:
Kuromame, black beans – good health for the coming year.
Kazunoko – tiny eggs in a tight cluster symbolize a wish for abundance and fertility.
Kinpira gobo, burdock root – rooted deep in the ground, physical strength and health.
Datemaki, omelet – rolled like a scroll for scholarship and culture.
Kamaboko, fishcake – the shape resembles the first sunrise of the new year. The red kamaboko is a good omen as a talisman against evil, and white signifies purity.
Kurikinton, chestnut and sweet potato, wish for economic fortune In new year.
Yakisakana, grilled fish – prayer for successful career.
Ebi, shrimp – the long antennae and curved body like the curved back of the elderly are a symbol for longevity.
Renkon, lotus root – with its many holes, symbolizes an unobstructed view of the future.
Namasu, daikon and carrots – festive red and white color scheme symbolizing good omen.
Konbu maki, – konbu is a play on words meaning “to be happy,” and its rolled shape symbolizes the scroll or wish for scholarship and culture.
Satoimo, taro – one taro plant produces many taro roots and symbolizes fertility.
And then there is the chicken gohan, chicken teriyaki, tatsuta-age, chirashi sushi, oshitashi, shirai, etc. I don’t know what the symbolism is for those dishes. I usually make about 15 or so dishes, and my brothers’ family all bring dishes so we have enough for many hours of eating, camaraderie, and friendly drop-ins. It’s a wonderful way to welcome the new year.
I’m still eating leftovers, like that housewife in Japan. Next week, I’m going to hook up with Oprah at Weight Watchers.
Oh yes. Apparently, osoji is another tradition. This refers to the end-of-year cleaning that takes place in offices and homes. It is believed that by cleaning your house, you can purify your residence and welcome the “Toshigami-sama” (god of the coming new year). I’m still working on that one with Marie Kondo.
Miya Iwataki has been an advocate for communities of color for many years, from the JACS Asian Involvement Office in Little Tokyo in the ’70s, through the JA redress/reparations struggle with NCRR while working for Rep. Mervyn Dymally, to statewide health rights advocacy. She also worked in public media at KCET-TV, then KPFK Pacifica Radio as host for weekly radio program, “East Wind.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.